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Africa's Changing Political Picture Reflected in Chaotic AU Summit

It used to be called "The Club of Dictators." The African Union (AU), and before it the Organization of African Unity, lists among its alumni such infamous characters as Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Sane Abacha, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Joseph Mobutu. But as VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein found as he chased African leaders through the AU summit halls in Addis Ababa last week, the era of dictators is slowly fading, and giving way to a new breed of leader.

The African Union witnessed something rare last week. A constitutionally-elected African leader making a farewell speech as he stepped down in favor of his elected successor.

Botswana's departing President Festus Mogae used his moment at the podium to warn that Africa must change its image as a continent of wars, political turmoil, and dictators for life.

"Strife and upheavals will continue to come at a large cost to our development and well-being, and deface the image of our continent," said Mr. Mogae.

Reporters wondered whether the Botswanan leader's invitation to speak was a subtle warning to his Southern African neighbor, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe? The 83-year-old strongman has clung to power since 1980, despite having presided over the ruin of Zimbabwe's once vibrant economy.

But African leaders agreed not to include Zimbabwe on the summit agenda. Instead, the issue is handled in secrecy on the sidelines, at a meeting of the Southern African Development Community.

South Africa President Thabo Mbeki briefed SADC on his efforts to save talks that are supposed to lead Zimbabwe to elections next month. But when asked about the SADC meeting, Mr. Mbeki is careful not to violate the unwritten rule: Leaders do not criticize each other in public.

Question: "Hello, Mr. Mbeki, can you tell us about your SADC meeting?"

Mr. Mbeki: "Ask the chairman of SADC. Ask the chair of SADC."

Question: "I guess it is a difficult issue. I guess that is why you are reticent to talk?"

Mr. Mbeki: "No, I am not. Ask the chair of SADC."

The political turmoil in Kenya overshadowed the troubles in Darfur and Somalia. Outgoing AU Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare, speaking through a translator, warns the assembled leaders of the need for urgent action.

" Today, if you look at Kenya, you see violence in the streets, and even ethnic cleansing and yes, genocide," Konare said. "We cannot just sit, arms folded."

But summit leaders chose not to take any action that would embarrass Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki.

They rejected a request by Kenya's opposition for a hearing. Instead of placing the item on the summit agenda, they assigned it to a subsidiary group, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which Kenya leads. Kenya's foreign minister briefed that group in a closed session, and the matter was quietly moved out of public view.

When President Kibaki arrived, ignoring the advice of several countries that he should stay home and try to quell the violence, he was spared public debate. Reporters who tried to ask questions as he came and went from the summit site were met with a stony silence.

Question: "Mr. Kibaki, are you going home today? …are you going home this afternoon?" Mr. Kibaki, Your country is in trouble. Are you going home today to take care of your country?"

With no briefings and no central clearinghouse for information at this chaotic summit, even ambassadors were reduced to standing around the hallways scrounging for scraps of information about closed sessions.

Portugal's ambassador to the African Union, Vera Maria Fernandes, expressed the frustrations of many exasperated summit watchers.

"All rumors. Nothing concrete," said Amb. Fernandes. "I heard that most probably there will be elections."

But there was the occasional payoff. Strolling through the hall in a flowing bronze-colored robe is Libya's head of state for 39 years, Moammar Gadhafi, one of Africa's longest-serving rulers. He is here promoting his controversial proposal for creating a union government, which he calls the United States of Africa.

Question: "Can we speak to you Mr. Gadhafi? Talk to you about the Union Government of Africa? In English, can you tell us whether union government is a possibility?"

Mr. Gadhafi: "Yes, It is possible. We formed a committee from the heads of state, and put down how to make this union government, to achieve it as soon as possible during the next summit."

Question: "During the next summit?"

Mr. Gadhafi: "Yes."

Question: "Do you think you are gaining ground. It is going to mean a big change in this organization, isn't it?"

Mr. Gadhafi: "No, no, no. All Africa is moving forward."

Colonel Gadhafi delivered the closing address and posed a provocative question: Is multi-party democracy right for Africa?

"Kenya is a country that is highly civilized, and now there are bloodbaths and this is because of elections," he said. "What can we do for Kenya's sake, for the Comoros, for Chad. We do not know what to do and this is painful for us," he said. Under the eyes of the whole world as we kill each other, and fight each other and demolish and destroy ... This is what the application of multi-partyism has led to."

But despite the deference shown to the Gadhafis and the Mugabes and others with questional democratic credentials, there are unmistakable signs that the sun is setting on the day of the African dictator.

Almost unnoticed was the outright rejection of a bid by Sudan to take over the rotating AU chairmanship. The post went to Tanzania, marking the third straight year the organization's top job has been held by an elected head of state from a stable African democracy.

But the question is; Did the summit accomplish anything substantive?

Sudan's outspoken Ambassador to the United Nations, Abdahmahmood Abdalhaleem, says the gatherings only allow the heads of state to keep in touch with each other.

"I do not want to be rhetorical and emotional to say it added a lot. It did not add much," he said. "If we look now at the small question of what did the summit do for Kenya, for example? Nothing. Nothing. There is nothing."

Meanwhile, the Sudanese diplomat acknowledges that these summits reflect the monumental changes under way on the continent.

"It is a new era. A new era when the African Union is trying to adjust itself more and more to the realities around it. Whether to have a union government or to accelerate the existing institutions toward unity or whatever," he said. "So it is a period of transformation, a period of great change in Africa itself."

The pace of change is accelerating. Just in the past few weeks, once-stable Kenya has erupted in what the U.S. and African Union officials call "ethnic cleansing." There is new fighting in Chad.

The next AU summit is set for July in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. But will we see the same assortment of democrats and dictators? In Africa, six months is a long time.